It started with a notice on Facebook. McBee Methodist Church would be holding a Christmas carol singing on Saturday, December 10 at 6:00. I had visited the historic chapel many times and had photographed it from the exterior, but I was dying to see the inside. This would be my chance.
McBee Methodist Church, aka McBee Chapel, is one of only three octagonal churches in the US. It was built in 1842 at the request of Alexander McBee, the son of Vardry McBee who had established mills in this area along the Reedy River. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. According to that entry…
Architecturally unique, McBee Methodist Church was designed ca. 1842 by John Adams, a local wheelwright who felt that more seating space could be secured by an octagonal arrangement. The little structure is a fine example of octagonal architecture in vogue in the United States from the 1840s-1860s, its prime advantage being that it encloses one-fifth more floor area than a square with the same total length of wall. In addition, octagonal design offered a new aesthetic dimension to American architecture at this time. The eight-sided brick structure has a pyramidal asphalt shingle roof topped by an octagonal louvered cupola. It also features a molded brick cornice and a whitewashed base. The small stained glass panes surrounding larger panes of clear glass were added at a later date. The balcony, formerly used by slaves prior to the Civil War, was later removed and its door converted to another window. The church has a seating capacity of 150. The church was named for Vardry McBee, the “Father of Greenville” who provided funds for the little church. Listed in the National Register March 23, 1972.National Register Listing – McBee Chapel
Although the congregation has fluctuated and dwindled over the years, Sunday services have been held continuously since the chapel’s founding, with only a one-year interruption during World War II. The current pastor is lay minister Laura Martin.
It was a rainy Sunday evening when I arrived. There was only one other car in the church’s yard. Pastor Martin and her husband Bob were there getting set up. For awhile it looked like it would just be the three of us and I was getting a bit worried. I wandered around taking photos.
The interior has several old wooden auditorium rows focused on a pulpit on one wall, opposite the main entry. In the center of the church a rope for the church’s bell hangs down.
Along the back wall there was a reminder that there had once been a slave gallery in the church. A break in the plaster marked the location of the former balcony. One of the windows had been an entrance to that gallery from the outside, but has long since been converted into a normal window. I can’t find any indication of when the balcony was removed, but I would have loved to have seen what it looked like when it was there.
There was an old-timey attendance board which showed only 8 members of the church. I’m surprised they are still holding services.
Soon others arrived. Some were members, but some had just stopped by. There were four women in party hats that looked like they had just come from a Christmas party. There were four young men, one in a clerical collar, who had seen the announcement on Facebook and had driven all the way from somewhere in Georgia. In all, there were twenty in attendance. Not too bad.
The evening service started with the ringing of the bell.
After that we started with the singing. The pastor’s husband had a small karaoke speaker set up and was using piano accompaniment tracks from his iPhone. It worked..ok. There were several times the accompaniment got ahead of the singers. Fortunately, it sounded like there were lots of strong, uninhibited singers in the group.
We went through most of the standards from the Methodist hymnal. I was a bit surprised at Pastor Laura’s knowledge gaps in hymnody. Several times she said, “I don’t know this one but I like the lyrics” to several well-known carols. She wanted to sing “Away in a Manger” but the only piano track they could find was for the lesser known tune, of which she was completely unfamiliar. I volunteered to play the tune from the hymnal on their piano. There were several non-Christmas hymns included – Victory in Jesus, Blessed Assurance, and Wonderful Grace of Jesus, to name a few.
The service lasted about an hour. There were several other carols from the Methodist hymnal that I would have loved to have sung, but we just didn’t get around to them. I’m not sure the pastor or those in attendance would have been familiar with them and I had already butted in by offering to play piano. No need to make an otherwise wonderful experience awkward. While chatting with folks afterwards I was asked if I would be interested in directing the music and playing for regular services. I politely declined. It would be intriguing, but I’ve gotten used to having Sundays free.
I’m glad to see that this chapel is still holding regular services, but it does look like the congregation is dying out. The evening’s bell ringer, a member of the church, said that they are hoping that the historical society can take over maintenance and preservation of the chapel. It would be a shame to lose such a unique landmark and I could see it used for other events such as weddings, etc. As I sat there my mind kept thinking about how great it would be to hold other singings, such as Shape Note singings here. With its unique architecture the acoustics are wonderful.
Many, many thanks to Laura and Bob Martin for organizing this event and giving us a peek into the historic chapel. I might just have to come back for a regular Sunday morning service.